Saturday, August 02, 2008

Philip Marchand -- writer, critic (The Toronto Star)

Philip Marchand -- writer, critic (The Toronto Star)

1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

I'm not sure how much "trouble" literature is in. The age of Tennyson was the last period in literature when "serious" literature found a mass market. Ever since, we've had a very small minority of readers for "serious" stuff, and a fairly large audience for thrillers, romance novels, detective novels, and so on. Then there's the Da Vinci Code phenomenon in which everybody, from your dentist to your car mechanic, is reading a certain book - in order to be able to join in discussions about the book on social occasions, if for no other reason.

There is no doubt that electronic media are the dominant entertainment and cultural media in our society. But this was also true of the 1920s, with the development of radio and cinema. Perhaps the only difference between then and now is that television, sometime around 1962, definitely killed the popular short story, as a distinct genre that once flourished in magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, Maclean's, and so on. (Or the Toronto Star Weekly, for that matter.)

Kids certainly have been affected by video games as a component of their entertainment. Yet I'm told that many kids still read - still read a lot, as a matter of fact. The only problem is that what they read are these massive multi-volume fantasy epics, etc. I suppose that's a problem. But literature as such is not going away, any more than stamp collecting, playing acoustic guitars, and so on.

I actually think the biggest threat to literature is not electronic media but a corrosive intellectual climate of "theory" that works against any ambitious piece of literature nowadays.

2. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

I've been grousing about literary prizes for years and nobody pays attention to me. There are so many problems with them - the foremost problem being to get good jury members. To get three good jurors is quite a feat, and it only takes one unfortunately chosen juror to drive the whole process off the rails. Even with a reasonable jury, Giller Prize winners and their like always turn out to be compromise choices, and sometimes they make your heart sink, thinking of an average literate person reading some of these prize novels, under the impression it's the best our writers can do. There has been a high percentage of mediocre works of fiction that have won the Giller. It's also punishing to authors - prizes being one more way for writers to fail, as one of them put it to me. But the worst effect is the corruption of literary publicity. I just wish we could have more periodicals devoted to accessible but rigorous critical examination of new novels, instead of this hoopla.

3. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

I remember the publisher Jack McClelland once commenting, some time around 1970, when his publishing house, McClelland & Stewart, was the first port of call for unpublished authors with their manuscripts, that it was simply not true that there was a substantial body of good literature out there in the hinterlands that was being unfairly neglected or overlooked. If something was really good, it eventually found a publisher. Nothing has changed in that regard. It is true that agents are now the first gatekeepers of literature, as it were, but that's not an insuperable barrier for a writer who truly has something to say and can say it well.

4. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience?

It's very hard for any author to win an audience. It is also true that it is harder for small press authors to win an audience, since they don't have the publicity machine behind them that larger publishers do - although it's a very creaky machine at best. But a remarkable talent will almost always eventually get broader exposure and make the transition from small press to more mainstream press. It is important to have half a dozen good literary presses going at any time, and unfortunately it does require some assistance from granting agencies, and so on.

5. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?

Canada could use a few more publishers. It wouldn't hurt.

6. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

So far technologies such as the e-book and the audio book have had zero effect on the basic format of the book. That format is just too good and convenient a technology to be replaced or seriously modified. Interesting developments such as print on demand and the whole internet e-bay phenomenon will affect the marketing and distribution of books but the basic product will remain the same.

7. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

Some libraries, anyway, certainly take their mandate seriously, hosting readings, hiring writers-in-residence, and so on. As a writer, I wish they would buy more books than non-book items, such as CDs and so on, but they have a wide community to service and these choices are always difficult. If I were ruler of Canada I would certainly spend more money on public libraries generally. English Departments also have a tricky balancing act - giving English majors a solid grounding in canonical literature - Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, as they used to say - and presenting them with some contemporary literature. Unfortunately, many literary academics proved to be traitors to the cause, subjecting their students to gaseous clouds of "theory" as opposed to helping students pay close attention to actual texts and to analyze them with both clarity and rigour. A student who has learned to examine George Eliot or Nathaniel Hawthorne with almost microscopic attention is more likely to have a discriminating interest in contemporary literary fiction than a student who has mastered theory.

8. Recently you remarked that Toronto lacks a great chronicler -- a great novelist who focuses specifically on Toronto. But again, given the realities of the fiction market and the fact Canadian authors often depend for their financial success on foreign sales, and the fact that contemporary Toronto as a topic does not elicit as much interest as London or New York, is there really an audience to sustain this kind of work these days?

I think American and British readers will give Toronto a chance if a novel set in this city is good enough.

9. In response to the same article, Catherine Bush remarked part of the problem is Canadian critics/academics not paying enough attention to the work that has already been published. Is this true? Do Canadians tend to forget their own literature?

This goes back to the question about literary prizes. If there were more serious and widespread critical discussion about literature in our culture, rather than all the fuss about one day wonders, or television panels about Giller Prize winners, then those books that deserve permanent attention, no matter how long ago they were published, would get their due of attention.

10. Finally, you are a writer yourself. You've written popular history mixed with memoir (Ghost Empire: How The French Almost Conquered North America), cultural studies/biography (Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger), criticism (Ripostes) and a crime novel (Deadly Spirits). But you are probably best known as a critic. Does the hard -- and necessary -- work that a critic does tend to get overlooked, especially given North America's (as opposed to Europe's) sole veneration of the author as the locus of literary achievement? In short, is the critic engaging in a form of literary writing, too?

A serious critic certainly tries to "engage in a form of literary writing" by making his or her writing lucid, intelligent, lively and above all passionate. If these qualities are present in the writing, then some criticism will have a long life. It will also be criticism that will contribute to deeper understanding of literary works in general, which I think authors would be happy about. But there's no doubt that purely imaginative writing - fiction, poetry, and so on - will always be the main focus of readers' attention. Great imaginative literature just burns deeper into the mind. I don't care if critics take a back seat in that respect. But it's always nice to be recognized for contributing to the cause, and there may be some deficient appreciation of that fact in literary circles.

As a critic, the only hope of longevity I have is that remarks I have made about various novels will turn out to be useful for students of those novels years hence. That would make me happy.

Bio: Philip Marchand is one of the best-known and most influential critics in Canada. He is also an author (see question 10, above), his most recent book being Ghost Empire: How The French Almost Conquered North America. For several years, his literary column appeared regularly in the books section of The Toronto Star.

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